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"Football Freakonomics": Is the N.F.L. a Quarterback-Driven League?

We launched the Football Freakonomics series in the spring with an episode called “The Quarterback Quandary.” It examined the difficulty of drafting QB’s since they  tend to be a) vital to a team’s success; and b) relatively expensive; but c) hard to assess coming out of college even if they have a substantial track record.

One thing we can all agree on, however: the NFL today is a quarterback’s league — isn’t it?

That’s the question we ask in our latest Football Freakonomics segment.

The numbers certainly line up in support of the quarterback’s dominance. As you can see in the accompanying graphic, there has been a sea change in the pass/run ratio over the past few decades. In the 1970’s, NFL offenses averaged roughly 26 passes and 35 runs per game. By the 2000’s, those numbers had essentially flip-flopped, with about 32 passes and 28 runs per game.

Things are still trending up. Last season saw the highest average number of passes per game yet (34.3, to just 26.9 rushes), and 2012 looks likely to continue the trend, even when you include Tim Tebow’s numbers.

In this episode, we explore a couple of wrinkles in the NFL passing explosion.

The first is a long-ago rule change that let receivers start to run wild, a rule that was in response to the very physical play of a certain ball-hawking, receiver-crushing cornerback (yes, he played on a very good team).

We also look at the wall of human airbags that protect quarterbacks these days – the offensive linemen – and how statisticians are finally starting to quantify each lineman’s performance, on every snap. This is sure to inform, if not revolutionize, how future linemen are assessed – and, more interestingly to the average fan, how we assess the play of the quarterbacks behind them.

In other words: do today’s gaudy passing numbers really mean that quarterbacks have gotten better, or have a variety of trends conspired to make them look better than they are? Furthermore: is an above-average QB really any better than a below-average QB (consider Ben Roethlisberger vs. Carson Palmer, e.g.), or how much of the former’s success is due to his system, his supporting cast, and his defense?

The quarterback may be the most important single player on the football field but he’s also a figurehead. As with figureheads in other realms – think of CEO’s and U.S. presidents – we tend to give them far more credit (and blame) than they are due. Sure, it’s easy to say the NFL today is a quarterback-driven league – but who’s driving the quarterback?